Thursday, May 19, 2005

End of an Era

No politics today. Rather, a commentary on a social event that has come to a theatrical close after 28 years.

I saw the original "Star Wars" when it came out in 1977. I was five. My dad took me to a crowded theatre at the nearby mall. And as soon as the music hit, and the crawl began, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen. It gave breath to and shaped my love for movies which continues to this day. It was a seminal event in film.

It goes without saying that I've seen all the others, waiting impatiently during the almost two-decade gap between "Return of the Jedi" and "Phantom Menace." And, having experienced the six-film saga, I now know two things:

  1. George Lucas can tell a great story
  2. George Lucas can't write a story to save his life

I don't know if a better story has ever been told on film. In fact, I do know it. Lucas created an almost impossible to comprehend universe and inserted into it a morality/redemption tale that is second to none on screen. (And no talking about the Rings trilogy. That story had already been told in print.)

But it is no fluke that the best of the six films is recognized to be "The Empire Strikes Back." Which also happens to be the one film Lucas neither directed nor wrote. Irvin Kershner directed it and Lawrence Kasdan wrote it. He popped back in to help Kasdan write "Return of the Jedi" and it shows, primarily with those repulsively cute Ewoks.

And then, of course, he has both directed and written the last two films.....and we'll say no more.

But the story and the universe are so solid, that when other people get involved, you get some phenomenal work. The latest example being the cartoon series "Clone Wars." Helmed by "Samurai Jack" creator Genndy Tartakovsky, the storylines and dialogue are so sharp that you get instantly sucked into the story. Which is why it's so frustrating when Lucas wreaks havoc all over it on celluloid.

Lucas can't write dialogue. It's that simple. He has the proverbial tin ear. Even in the original movie, you see a couple of cringe-inducing lines. And in the prequel trilogy, he has had nothing and no one to check him, with the result being some of the most horrific dialogue ever attached to a major motion picture.

"Gungans have grand army. That's why you no liking us meesa thinks."

Ugh. And it gets no better in "Attack of the Clones" or, for the most part, in "Revenge of the Sith."

The weakness here is that, unlike the Original Trilogy (OT), this is all backstory. It's filler. And there is zero suspense. We know Obi-Wan will live, and so will Anakin/Vader. We know the Empire rises and Palpatine is the Emperor (and if you didn't, you're too stupid to live. Seriously.). Compare that to the original trilogy. Will they blow up the Death Star? Vader is Luke's dad?? Will Vader find redemption, or will Luke give in and replace him???

So when you lack the ability to shock and captivate the audience in that manner, you have to make up for it in the storyline and dialogue. If anything, you have to go above what you'd normally shoot for to make up the lack of suspense.

And Lucas only completes half the job. If you divorce yourself from the dialogue and the occasional atrocious character, you'll see how solid the story is. The manipulations of the Emperor from the start. Anakin's growth and the fatal weakness he has always held. The willful ignorance of the Jedi and the slow, stumbling death of the Republic. The storyline is rock-solid. It kicks ass.

But the script... The leaden lines, the treacly prose, it brings you completely out of the moment. "Star Wars" avoided that problem because it had the suspense, the originality to rise above and forgive some clunker dialogue. But these last three films don't have that, so they rise and fall partially on the words.

The kinda-good news is that the script is somewhat better in the last film. Despite some really, really bad choices (you'll know what I mean), Lucas gets more of it correct. Especially with Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine. His way of seeding doubt in Anakin's mind is well-crafted, and well-delivered by Ian McDiarmid. And Ewen McGregor is so much a younger Sir Alec it's scary. He does a nice job as well.

But the film has to rise and fall on Anakin/Vader. As much as we all loved Luke in the OT, the story has always been about Vader. It's a redemption tale played out on a galactic scale. To make it believable, you have to like Anakin so much that when he falls, you seethe with hatred for his betrayal. That you feel betrayed by him.

And Hayden Christensen can't pull it off. He can't deliver the role the way it needs to be delivered. He's a C+ actor in an A+ role. And that just doesn't cut it.

What makes it worse, though, are the lines he's given. Give a clunker to McGregor, and he can pull it off. Give one to Hayden, and it's disastrous. And he gets more than one. And this doesn't include the "love" scenes with Natalie Portman that make you cringe in your seat.

And it's a shame, because it detracts from some really good moments. The final (for now) duel between Anakin and Kenobi is fantastic, some of the best action in the entire epic. But moments like that have to compete with Natalie asking Hayden to "Hold me . . . like you did by the lake on Naboo."

Which leads to Lucas' other problem: he enjoys CGI way too much. Every scene with a window has a thousand ships flying by. Everything has to be CGI to the max...scenery, characters. My guess is that he knows that his prose isn't the best, so he tries to compensate with amazing scenes. And sometimes, it works. The final duel is wonderful, for example.

But sometimes it can be too much. The opening space battle is almost incomprehensible in its scope. And the volume of spacecraft is astounding. Once you see it, compare it to the final battle in "RotJ", or even the assault on the Death Star in the original. Which was more exciting, more real? I find myself wishing it was a little grittier, a little less polished, a little less cluttered.

And we have animated droids, Yoda, cityscapes, backdrops...all to dazzle and amaze the eye.

But the best scene in the movie? It takes place between the Chancellor and Anakin at a play. They are alone, in a balcony booth, where the Chancellor tells Anakin a story. That's it. No computer effects or crazy explosions. But what is said, and the effect it has, is fantastic. It's a well-directed, well-written scene.

The shame is that Lucas can't harness that occasional spark of excellence across an entire film. In the end, he's his own worst enemy, damaging his excellent stories with his below-average scripts.

So, it's (kinda) over. The films are apparently finished. I am sure there'll be more books, video games and such to come. Supposedly there are two live TV shows in the works. But no more will we see the opening crawl on the big screen, backed by John William's score.

But for Lucas, there are other projects. Apparently, a fourth "Indiana Jones" is in the works. Story by Lucas, but script by Frank Darabont and directed by Spielberg. Which should ensure a wonderful film all the way around.

I just wish this epic, that spanned so much of my life, had the same chance. But instead, it'll stagger home, wounded but alive.


I have to make one further comment, and that is on Lucas' obvious parallel b/t the collapse of the Republic with Palpatine pulling the strings and Bush/Cheney running roughshod over the US these days. There is a great line spoken at the moment the Empire is born, and we'd all do well to heed it. Too many of us feel that it's okay to surrender our freedoms for security simply because the White House says it's needed. We're willingly putting our head in the noose and smiling as the executioner pulls the lever.

It's when we are threatened most that we have to hold on to our freedom. Otherwise, we start down a dark path, one where we can easily lose our way.

(PS - Obviously, it's been a while since I've posted. Two words: new baby. I'll still be on-and-off, but I hope to be slightly more regular with my posting.)

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